I just finished reading “Intimate Voices from the First World War“, edited by Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. Yes, I am a sentimental person – but few books have jerked tears from my eyes like this one. The letters, and diary entries, are expertly selected, translated and intertwined together into a majestic portrait of that terrible war as experienced by the people most touched by it.
Not long ago, I had read History of the World War, in which one passage, in particular, stood out in my mind (pg. 32):
Millions of gallant, eager youths learned how to die fearlessly and gloriously. They died to teach the vandal nations that never-more will humanity permit the exploitation of peoples for militaristic purposes.
But Intimate Voices provides a more realistic view of that war. For example, here is one letter by Russian soldier Vasily Mishnin (pg. 39):
I have to go and relieve the guard under the cover of fire that’s pouring on to the enemy trenches. My heart pounds, it is a terrifying thing to walk to your death. The seven of us climb out of our trench and go up to the barbed wire boundary. We find a hole in it and crawl through it like cats. Bullets and shells keep flying out of the German trenches, lighting up our position. We get to the guard post, let the previous lot off duty and take their places. It is frightening even to sit or lie down here – the rifle is shaking in my hands. My hand comes down on something black: it turns out there are corpses here that haven’t been cleared away. My hair stands on end. I have to sit down. There is no point in staring into the distance – it is pitch dark. All I can feel is fear. I am so frightened of the shells that I want the ground to open up and swallow me…
I leave my post and climb into my dugout. It is packed, everyone is shaking and asking again and again, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’ One explosion follows another, and another. Two lads are running, shouting out for nurses. They are covered in blood. It is running down their cheeks and hands, and something else is dripping from underneath their bandages. They’re soon dead, shot to pieces. There is screaming, yelling, the earth is shaking from artillery fire and our dugout is rocking from side to side like a boat.
The explosions come nearer and nearer. The injured from the 1st Company arrive and crawl into our dugout crazed and in agony, so we drop all our gear and try to crawl out, to run away – somewhere, anywhere. And at that moment a shell flies right into our dugout and my mates Kozhukhin and Blinov, who’d just crawled out, stand staring at it, as if they’d gone out of their minds.
We are running, but God knows where. Our CO had run off to the forest. I suppose he thought it was safer in there. As if. None of us can understand what’s going on. Everyone is trembling. We crouch down on the ground in silence, then when a shell bursts right around our ears we move on.
Samoudrikhin and I scramble into a peasant hut. We press ourselves against a wall, sit down and wipe our eyes. Our eyes are full of tears, we wipe them away, but they just keep coming because the shells are full of gas. We are terrified. Samoudrikhin and I lie face down and we just want to dig ourselves into the earth. Under our breath we pray to our Lord God to save us from this, just for this one day…
Tragedy brought home
We read about the blooming romance between a young German girl, Piete Kuhr, and a German lieutenant, Werner Waldecker. On their last date, he tried to kiss her – but she wouldn’t let him, even though she secretly wanted the kiss. That kiss was never to come, for we read (pg. 254):
When I entered the classroom, Greta Daluge and Trude Jakobi were parting from each other. They had shocked faces and were quite embarrassed. I asked, ‘What’s the matter?’ Trude Jakobi stammered. ‘Don’t you know? Werner Waldecker has crashed.’ ‘Dead?’ ‘Yes. Dead. He was going to go over to Bielefeld tomorrow. To his mother.’ All she knew was that Waldecker had taken off from the airfield that morning and had crashed soon afterwards. I picture his face, his flashing eyes, the wisps of fair hair. Is all that shattered, broken to bits, smeared with blood, his skull in pieces? What am I to do now? How can I hide my feelings from all the people, from Grandma, Willi, Androwski, my friends?
Even more poignant are the last diary entries of Austrian officer Virgilio Bonamore. He wrote (pg. 155):
I slept badly. I have a terrible feeling that something will happen to me. I saw myself lying pale like a dead man on a stretcher. My mother and sister stood over me. They kissed me and shed floods of tears.
Only four days later (pg. 156) he wrote:
It is enough to drive you insane. Dead, wounded, massive losses. This is the end. Unprecedented slaughter, a horrific bloodbath. There is blood everywhere and the dead and bits of bodies lie scattered about so that…
The editors explain (pg. 157):
The diary breaks off here in mid-sentence as the Austrian officer unknowingly records the moment of his own death. A Hungarian officer finds the body when the firing dies down at the end of that day, adding to the diary underneath the Austrian’s last words: ‘I found this diary in the hand of a dead officer on the Doberdo plateau: God bless him.’
Humanity shines through
Many readers are no doubt familiar with the Christmas truces that were observed on the Western Front during WWI. According to one of the letters in “Intimate Voices”, there was at least one such truce on the Eastern Front as well. From a diary entry by Josef Tomann, writing of the brutal siege of Przemysl by the Russians (pg. 77):
On Christmas morning our scouts found three Christmas trees the Russians had left in no-man’s land with notes that said something like: ‘We wish you, the heroes of Przemysl, a Merry Christmas and hope that we can come to a peaceful agreement as soon as possible.’ There was a truce on Christmas Day, they neither attacked, nor fired.
The Russian soldiers make a neighing sound whenever they see our troops, as they know we are forced to eat horsemeat in the fortress. A few days ago one of our patrols found a note they’d left us, showing where the potato and cabbage fields were and saying they would stop shooting while we fetched some food. It was true! When our soldiers went over, the Russians shot two blanks high into the air, just to let them know they’d seen them. The next day we all went for some more.
Unfortunately, according to the diary of Polish woman Helena Jablonska, this kindness did not extend to the Jews, who were brutalized by the occupying Cossack troops.
“Intimate Voices” is graced with photos of some of the people whose diaries and letters make up the book. The editors went through the trouble of researching biographical information about these people and, where possible, tell us about the remainder of their lives. There is also a short description of the political fates of each major player in the war and how it impacted the rest of the century. Even how it shaped the world we live in today.
It is ironic that those few years of brutality, disease, suffering and death could be brought so much to life within the 375 pages of this book. Needless to say, I strongly recommend this book!